Best “New” Seafood: Westgate Room. In another remade hotel restaurant, an airier, less-formal ground-floor (and more down-to-earth) space replaces the stuffy old Le Fontainebleau. Beautiful, with superb service, it still feels luxe, calme, et volupté, but prices are lower while culinary standards remain exalted. Normandy-born chef Fabrice Hardel, who grew up savoring seafood, is a marvel at preparing it. (And, psst, a little molecular magic provides surprise thrills.) Stay away from old-menu shibboleths, go for the fresh-fish creations.
Best New Vacation-on-a-Plate: Vela. The restaurant’s name means “sail,” and at the new Bayfront Hilton, you feel as if you’re on a luxury yacht, relaxing into a mini-vacation of ease and indulgence. The farm-fresh, seasonal food is as delightful as the waterfront view. Gulf prawns in escabeche were stunningly sweet and tender, and Meyer beef carpaccio had my whole table moaning like Meg Ryan (but quietly). Prix-fixe international “exploration” dinners are treats (for the chef, too — you can taste it), while the appetizer array and affordable wine flights invite grazing dinners. Best yet is the spirit of generosity. They really aim to please.
Best New Italian: Bice. The local offshoot of a hugely successful Milan-based international chain looks slick and modern, but its kitchen follows Italy’s old traditions of artisanal ingredients and farm-fresh produce, “slow food” from the country that invented it. Want to taste some of the foodstuffs you’ve heard Mario Batali rave about? There’s a cheese-and-salumi bar (its offerings available at tables, too), house-made breads and pastas, exquisite not-too-sweet desserts (e.g., a superb panna cotta). And on this huge, inviting menu, most dishes are under $20! Service is warm but not stifling, intent on providing maximum pleasure. Runner-up: Operacaffe. This welcome throwback to the pre–convention center Gaslamp (when Italian restaurants were small and affordable) rolls back the cost and the tension. It offers unselfconscious Florentine home-style cooking, simple and sensual and delizioso, in a hospitable, laid-back atmosphere. “This one is just for San Diegans — no tourists!” say the owners.
Best New Fusion: Jai. Aah, finally, this is what fusion should be! This Wolfgang Puck spin-off is hidden amidst lovely tall trees on the UCSD campus, a gleaming, comfortable modern restaurant instead of a witch’s cottage, with excellent service. Chef Yoshinori Kojima does benign witchcraft of his own with precise, masterful dishes, such as an outstanding tempura soft-shell crab with tender meat, and a miso-glazed butterfish, its sweet flesh robed in a silken sauce. Food-pundits say that fusion’s about to go out of style (as it should, given how screwed-up it often is); even so, Jai deserves to survive as a living monument to the genre at its finest.
Best New “Have It Your Way” Hangout: Cucina Urbana. Restaurateur Tracy Borkum killed her upscale Laurel and replaced it with this rackety, informal Italian-inspired eatery offering creative and shareable nibbles, for grazing or gobbling, eating (and spending) a little or a lot — at tables, at the bar, at a huge communal table favored by singletons. An attached wine shop offers all bottles at $7 corkage over retail price. The primary flaw is the price of success: how can you hang out at a hangout where reservations and even bar-seats are horribly hard to score?
Best Greek: Apollonia Greek Bistro. In a town filled with Greek restaurants of highly variable quality, Apollonia has the most complete and nearest-to-authentic menu (including seafood — remember, Greece consists of islands!). The greaseless moussaka is exceptional; other joys include wonderful taramasalata (cod roe mousse) and lush stuffed eggplant, imam bayaldi.
Best New Upscale Mexican: El Vitral. The creative mainland Mexican nueva cocina is wildly uneven here dish to dish — plus they foolishly withhold their four fabulous salsas from the table, providing them only with certain entrées. But when it’s good, it’s very good: try the rich sopa de elotes (corn soup), handmade quesadillas (totally fabuloso), scallops, duck mini-enchiladas, cochinita pibil (Mayan-style “pulled pork”), duck fettuccine with mole, and above all, a dessert of churros with coconut sauce. The “Smokin’ Tippler” spicy margarita makes a mighty tipple, and dining on the patio with its toes on Petco is fun.
Best New Inexpensive Mexican: Cantina Mayahuel. In a tiny but attractive space, the short menu is authentically mainland, a limited selection of soft “street tacos” plus salads, “bowls,” and weekly specials, including Friday night’s extraordinary chicken moles — a choice of house-made poblano or imported Oaxacan black mole or half and half. Margaritas are big and cheap ($5); food prices top out at ten bucks.
Best New Middle Eastern: Mystic Grill and Bakery. Still looks like the cheap pizza joint it used to be. Still serves cheap pizza. (Don’t go there.) But the Jordanian chefs are proud professionals. If you’ve given up on felafel and kibbe, try again here. They’ll blow your mind. Top ingredients (halal Prime beef, fresh baby chickens) and skilled cooking “from scratch” set this one well above the norm. Don’t skip the house-made, not-oversweet desserts, including three variations on baklava.
Best Happy Hour: Candelas, Coronado. The best happy hours don’t just drown your troubles, they carry you away from them. At Candelas, a generous menu of exquisite, sometimes exotic upscale-Mexican creative appetizers at half-price, paired with half-price drinks in a stunning bay-view location, makes this the ultimate happy-hour heaven to wash all your blues away. Runner-up: Puerto La Boca. Argentina’s dinner hour starts at 11:00 p.m., so the cuisine includes a rich array of tasty “teatime” tapas to enjoy along with South American wines. Puerto La Boca isn’t a splashy bar scene but an instant escape to some artists’ café in Buenos Aires, a sophisticated epicurean experience at deeply discounted prices.
Best New Gastropub: All American Grill. In a hipper location, this huge pub might challenge crowded Cucina Urbana (not to mention Jayne’s Gastropub, et al.) as a casual foodie hangout. But it’s way off the trodden gastronomy trail that runs from Mission Hills to Kensington. Down the cliff in Route 8 mall country, it occupies a former Trophy’s in Hazard Center. (Yes, the TVs remain, usually muted but springing to life during Sunday games.) Nonetheless, talented chef Timothy Au is transforming pub grub into genuinely good grub, using fresh local ingredients and a wood-fired grill to make creative mini-pizzas, classy burgers, gorgeous roasted Carlsbad mussels, steaks, ribs, et al. And creative cocktails (with juices, not cloying commercial mixes) cost about the same as a glass of wine.